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Rising water threatens homes in Bovey

Water levels in the Canisteo Mine Pit have been going up since the 1980s. They could soon rise over the lowest wall of the pit.

Small community near mine pit cloudy day
Bovey is located next to the Canisteo Mine Pit. Officials are looking for a solution to rising levels that could cause water to overflow over the edge of the pit.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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BOVEY — When Molly and Dean Randall bought their home 36 years ago, they knew there would be a “slight seepage” of water in the basement.

But within five years, their basement was flooding regularly, resulting in thousands of dollars of structural damage over the next 20 years.

“Our yard used to have pools of water in it. We were worried about trees losing their root system and falling over,” Molly Randall said. “It was really serious. It was just really, really bad.”

Small community near mine pit cloudy day
Molly Randall lives in this home in Bovey. Randall has dealt with many years of water issues at her home because of rising water levels in the Canisteo Mine Pit.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The cause: rising water levels in the Canisteo Mine Pit, a series of abandoned iron ore mine pits just across the street and railroad tracks from their home. It’s been filling with water after mining operations — and dewatering of the pit — ended in the 1980s, pushing nearby groundwater higher.

For years, the state has used temporary fixes to alleviate problems while waiting for money to build a permanent solution. Funding for that long-term fix appeared to be part of the state’s bonding bill this year, but the Minnesota Legislature adjourned in the spring without passing it.

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Canisteo Mine Pit water levels.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Without intervention, the water levels — rising 5-7 feet per year — are expected to pass over 1,318 feet in elevation, the highest level recorded, by spring, said Mike Liljegren, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources division of land and minerals assistant director.

Any higher would overwhelm the drainage tile system built under Bovey’s First Avenue by the DNR in 2011 and meant to keep water out of nearby basements, Liljegren said.

Small community near mine pit cloudy day
If water were to overflow at the Canisteo Mine Pit, it would begin to flow underneath this railroad trestle.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

And if water levels reach 1,324 feet, it will begin flowing over the lowest part of the pit’s rim, just a short walk down the Mesabi Trail from Randall’s home.

“It would reach 1,324 and just slowly start to trickle over the edge and then it will, sooner or later, find out where its equilibrium is and where it’s going to stay — where you’re going to have groundwater (in) equaling overflow out,” Liljegren said.

“These people here would probably have yards that would be inundated with water, but it’s not going to be something like a flooding scenario or catastrophe where it would just take it and flush somebody’s house right off their foundation,” Liljegren said. “That’s not going to happen.”

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Michael Liljegren, of St. Paul, assistant director of Mine Permitting and Coordination with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Lands and Minerals, talks about the effects of rising water levels in the Canister Mine Pit on Wednesday in Bovey.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Earlier this month, the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation gave the DNR $710,000 to pump water out of the pit and lower water levels until a permanent solution is built.

But funding for the $6.5 million fix remains stuck in legislature limbo.

A permanent fix

Once it has the money, the DNR said it will build a culvert on the west end of the mine pit, near Mt. Itasca Winter Sports Center. Installed at 1,305 feet, it would keep water levels from going any higher than that.

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The community of Bovey shown Wednesday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Using gravity — it won’t require pumping after construction is complete — the system will take water from the Canisteo Pit under County Highway 61 into a wetland complex where it will flow naturally through the West Hill and Lind pits and finally the Prairie River, according to Liljegren.

More about the Canisteo Pit
Relief is on the way for people in the Bovey area whose basements are wet from water seeping from the flooded Canisteo mine pit in Bovey. Test drilling begins this week for a drain tile system to capture ground water flowing from the pit and dive...

The project was expected to be in a bonding bill, but the Minnesota Legislature adjourned in the spring with plenty of work left unfinished. It would take a special section to get it approved this year.

“We were ready to deal with it again at the Legislature and it’s sitting in a bonding bill that has been mostly agreed to but not passed … and because the Legislature did not act on the permanent solution, we’re calling on them to act in the future,” IRRR Commissioner Mark Phillips said during the board’s Aug. 15 meeting.

The more than $700,000 approved during that meeting will go toward a pump system to lower water levels until that permanent fix can be built.

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Erosion is common on the shores of the Canisteo Mine Pit in Bovey. Rising water levels do not allow for the adjacent areas of land to stabilize.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Lowering the water with pumps would have been required before construction anyway, but the IRRR and DNR hope the pumps won’t be relied on long term.

Temporary fixes

There have been other temporary solutions over the years.

In 2011, the DNR built a drain tile system under Bovey’s First Avenue to carry groundwater away from homes in the low-lying areas of town and divert it to Trout Creek and Trout Lake.

“The natural groundwater flow is this direction, that drain tile system going down the street intercepts that before that would get to those people’s homes,” Liljegren said.

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Small community near mine pit cloudy day
One of many monitoring wells used by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to monitor water levels in Bovey.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

And it works.

“It made a world of a difference,” Randall said. The under-street drain tile covers two sides of her corner-lot house.

But the drain tile is designed to work with water levels up to 1,318 feet. Any higher than that — without pumping, the pit would exceed that level next year — and the drain tiles could be inundated with water and become ineffective.

Relief from rising water levels also came from mining companies’ use of the water.

Canisteo Mine Pit.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

On the other side of the Canisteo, Magnetation’s Plant 4 pumped water out of the pit for use in its operations in 2012, lowering water levels by more than 20 feet. But it filed for bankruptcy in 2015 and pumping stopped in 2016. ERP Iron Ore took over and pumped water briefly in 2017 and 2018 but it went bankrupt, too.

Water levels have been rising since, but were slowed a bit during last summer’s drought.

Another company, MagIron — run by the former Magnetation CEO Larry Lehtinen — has bought Plant 4 and could resume pumping .

But regulators don’t want to count on mining companies to control the water levels.

“Mining isn’t the solution because (companies) come and go,” Liljegren said.

‘Nobody on the hook’

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Michael Liljegren, of St. Paul, assistant director of Mine Permitting and Coordination with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Lands and Minerals, looks over a section of abandoned railway adjacent to the Canisteo Mine Pit.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

If a mining company were to stop mining in a pit today, their permit to mine would require them to carry out a reclamation plan for the future of its site, including control of pit water levels.

But modern reclamation laws weren’t passed in Minnesota until 1980, leaving the Canisteo without a company responsible for it.

“There was no regulatory program prior to that; that’s why they’re a legacy mine pit,” Liljegren said. “There’s nobody on the hook for that, per se, because there’s no regulatory authority or permit that was with that. So in essence, the pit is filling up and rising and there is no program currently that would manage that.”

More than 100 years of mining left Snowshoe and Kelly lakes with just a fraction of their natural watershed.

The DNR has identified similar rising water issues at the Hill Annex Mine Pit, near Calumet and Hill Annex Mine State Park, and the St. James Mine Pit near Aurora.

But there are likely more across the many other legacy pits dotting the Iron Range.

State Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, said she wants a legacy mine account to provide funding to deal with these old mine pits, whether that be water levels, invasive species, sulfate levels or other issues. She’s proposed a bill to create such an account.

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If water levels were allowed to rise in the Canisteo Mine Pit, this is the point where the water would overflow.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“We don’t have great, clear language around legacy mine pits, and there could be a whole host of issues,” Sanstede said during the IRRR meeting.

Doing so could prevent a mad rush for funding when the problem approaches its tipping — or overflow — point.

Randall said the issue has energized her to get even more involved, and hopefully convince lawmakers elsewhere in the state that this is important, even if it doesn’t directly affect them.

She believes it’s ultimately the state’s problem to solve.

“Years and years ago, when all these mines went in the area, the state was so happy to have employment for the people, of course. My dad was one of those people that worked in the mine,” Randall said.

“And they never made sure that all these (pits) were drained, so they just kept filling up and filling up, including all the other pits along the way,” Randall said. “So they created the problem, the state actually did, because whoever the powers were back then didn’t even give that a thought.”

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Rising water levels in the Canisteo Pit continue to cause erosion, forcing this mining railway, pictured Wednesday in Bovey, to be abandoned.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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A view of the Canisteo Mine Pit on Wednesday in Bovey.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Small community near mine pit cloudy day
In 2012, drain tile was installed in this street. The drain tile moves subterranean water away from homes in the area. Water continues to be a problem due to the rising levels of the Canisteo Mine Pit.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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